Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee – Book Review

Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga has gained the status of a modern classic over its publication between 2017 and 2021. I haven’t read it yet, and so can tell you, hand over heart, Untethered Sky is a triumphant introduction to Lee’s work. Chock-full of compelling characters, this novella exudes a love and respect for the myths and legends of the Middle East. Two creatures and their relationship take center stage across Untethered Sky: the roc and manticore.

The roc of myth is a bird of prey, not unlike a giant eagle, capable of picking up an elephant with its talons and carrying it off to its nest in the high mountains. Lee does not portray her rocs capable of quite such a feat, but that is not to say they are not spectacular creatures through sheer size. Soon after protagonist Ester first encounters the roc she is to domesticate, Zahra, she notes:

“With one massive taloned foot, she could crush my head like a ripe apricot and tear out my entrails before anyone could make a move.”

Zahra’s physicality is a thing of beauty, and to watch her grow through Ester’s eyes is to share in her love and tenderness for this magnificent creature, monstrous and petulant and cruel as it can, on occasion, be.

What makes rocs so valuable as to be domesticated in the all-consuming way they are is that they are the sole natural predators to the malicious manticores who feast on humans. These solitary monsters are a blight on humanity, prowling the wildernesses, attacking villages and outposts and the outskirts of towns in flurries of rage caused by human screams. And, sure enough, screams accompany a manticore everywhere they show up. Savage beasts like these are a blight on the earth, and horrifying:

“The manticore turned its gaze on me. One long, infinite stare. Its eyes resembled human eyes, but whatever feeling or intelligence was behind them was alien and hungry. One iris was golden brown, the other was as blue as the sky.”

Lee paints such vivid pictures of these creatures, the same way as when she sets up the hardships a ruhker goes through to create the bond between themselves and their roc. The first third of the novella is committed to painstakingly imbuing the practice of ruhking with life and tradition. Seeing Ester go through the hardships she does, seeing the personal sacrifices necessary, but also the camaraderie between the men and women who choose this path for themselves. Take Darius, for example:

Ruhking is a proud profession that attracts some individuals motivated by personal ego and the number of kills they can attach to their names. Darius wasn’t one of those people; he might not be happy about losing his quarry, but he was also relieved not to risk Minu’s life.

Darius is one of two major supporting ruhkers who both serve as mentors and friends, the other being Nasmin; the stories of the three and their rocs are intimately interwoven, with twists and turns I’d never dare spoil for you.

To be a ruhker is to give your life to a beast, knowing all the meanwhile that this beast is driven not by the complex interweaving of emotion and rationality a human is but by instincts that can only be grasped at a surface level. The relationship between Ester and Zahra is a thing of beauty: to Ester, Zahra is at once a tool of vengeance against the manticores, a captive, an extension of her will, another self. To Zahra, Ester is captor, nurturer, caregiver, beastmaster. And more, much more than this–mine is not an exhaustive list by any margin. Nor are the roles of captive and captor clearly defined. Rather, the boundaries between the two are porous, captive and captor lost in the act of captivity:

“On the good days, you feel as if you and your roc are one. Zahra and I were complete; we were the sun and the wind, the sky and the earth, life and death, above the world and untouchable.”

Zahra comes alive in so many ways, Lee giving her personality in spades:

“Rocs are a reminder that nothing is beyond God’s power of creation. She is possibility incarnate; when she soars into the air, she takes part of me with her, far away from the constraints of the earth. She was also as tedious and demanding of my patience as only a large beast can be … she was like a recalcitrant child–one the size of a large man armed with deadly weapons.”

Not a profession for the weak of heart, I’ll tell you that much. As far as freshmen efforts in novella-writing go, this measures up among the most charming of them. Conflict, excellent characters, plentiful action, and a unique bond between human and beast. All of that enclosed within a gorgeous cover. What more can you possibly want?

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